For some writers, the words “Now A Major Motion Picture” can spell the beginning of a lucrative back-and-forth relationship between the realm of movies and literature. If a film’s popular enough, a sharp increase in book sales should logically follow, and for those authors in the right place at the right time, an adaptation can provide the perfect boost.
At the same time, the sale of a novel to movie producers can be somewhat bittersweet. Once in the hands of filmmakers and screenwriters, the ownership’s essentially gone – unless, of course, the author happens to be adapting the book themselves – and the quality of the finished product is left in the lap of the cinema gods.
This article is devoted to an unusual breed of film adaptation: the sort that completely eclipses the source novel. The reasons for this can vary – a title change can often sever the valuable link between book and film. The director in charge of adapting it may be so renowned and successful that their involvement with the material becomes more commonly spoken of than the original novel. Or maybe the passing of time has simply left the book dwindling in fame, while its adaptation continues to endure.
We’re not saying that any of the books on this list are inferior to the movies that inspired them; in some instances, the opposite is true, and it’s sad to learn that some of them are no longer in print and difficult to find. This is by no means an exhaustive list – it’s more of a cross-section – so feel free to add your own suggestions if you have them.
Join us, then, as we take a look at 16 novels less well known than their movie adaptations, and why some of them deserve a bit more love…
Based on: Scarface by Armitage Trail
Directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes, Scarface was infamous for its violence (censors strongly disapproved of the film and its title), and is one of the most enduring and well regarded of all gangster movies. Brian De Palma’s trashy remake of the same name is similarly celebrated, both for its operatic violence and drama, and Al Pacino’s show-stopping performance as Cuban drug dealer Tony Montana.
That Scarface was originally inspired by a novel is seldom discussed; written by Maurice Coons under the pseudonym Armitage Trail, the book was inspired by both Al Capone’s career and general Sicilian gang activity in late 20s Chicago; it’s said that Coons spent two years roaming the streets of the city with a friend, compiling his research. Coons’ experiences no doubt contributed to the book’s detail, which inspired the characters of the movies if not their events.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956/1978/1993/2007)
Based on: The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
Don Siegel’s 1950s sci-fi is a true classic of cinema, and the 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland is almost its equal. Abel Ferrara’s 1993 remake was an interesting, typically odd take on the material, while 2007’s The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman, is a disaster best avoided altogether.
That Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is an adaptation probably isn’t widely known outside sci-fi circles, but Jack Finney’s source novel is nevertheless still in print. Like the movie, the book details an invasion of plant-like beings that gradually replicate and take over the population of a small American town. Unlike the movie, however, the book has a relatively upbeat ending, where the pod people leave Earth after five years, their invasion attempt a failure.
The movie’s more downbeat conclusion seemed to chime more readily with its paranoiac themes, and it was this element that repeatedly made its way into the subsequent remakes; only The Invasion dared to revert back to a happy conclusion at least vaguely like the book’s (the threat in the 2007 is akin to a disease), and it was a dismal box office flop.
Based on: D’Entre Les Morts by Boileau-Narcejac
Recently voted the best film of all time by Sight & Sound, Alfred Hitchcock’s stylish direction and authorial stamp on Vertigo is such that its origins in French literature are rarely mentioned. D’Entre Les Morts (or The Living And The Dead) was extremely similar to Hitchcock’s movie, with a cop retiring after his fear of heights results in the death of a colleague.
The book is more of a character piece than a mystery, and if anything, its conclusion is more tragic. Vertigo, thanks to the panache and sheer fame of Hitchcock, is the better-known work of art, but it’s not hard to see what captured his imagination in this enigmatic, dreamlike novel.
Based on: Psycho by Robert Bloch
Although some will no doubt already know that Hitchcock’s Psycho was adapted from Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, we’d wager that far more people have seen the movie than read the book.
Again, Hitchcock’s fame as an auteur might suggest that much of what’s great about Psycho sprung from his brow, but the movie’s remarkably close to the book, with a secluded motel, a woman on the run with stolen cash, and a proprietor with serious mother issues. The major difference is that the book’s Norman Bates is a more obvious degenerate than the one in the film; the Bates embodied by Anthony Perkins is a handsome, apparently wholesome boy next door.
Hitchcock played up the book’s mystery angle, and having the first half of the film follow Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) was also his idea, developed with screenwriter Joseph Stefano. Paramount thoroughly disliked Bloch’s novel, thinking it too violent to film, hence Hitchcock’s ‘quick-and-dirty’ approach to the shoot at Universal, with a lower than usual budget and a crew borrowed from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series.
Cape Fear (1962/1991)
Based on: The Executioners by John D MacDonald
Cape Fear was a classic 60s thriller, with a great battle of wits between Robert Mitchum’s barrel-chested ex-convict and the lawyer who convicted him, played by Gregory Peck. Director J Lee Thompson freely borrowed the tension-building techniques of Hitchcock (whom he’d worked with in the past), which were further highlighted by Bernard Herrmann’s imposing score.
Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake reprised the music and clouded the moral waters, with Nick Nolte playing a far less heroic lawyer stalked by the man he stitched up years earlier, fearsomely embodied by a tattooed Robert De Niro.
Novelist John D MacDonald was an extremely popular thriller writer in the 1950s, and it was Gregory Peck’s idea to adapt The Executioners – he even chose its new title, Cape Fear. James R Webb’s script sticks closely to the original text, though it simplifies its characters’ backstories (they were in the army together in the book), and adds in the houseboat climax, which Scorsese liked so much he kept it for his remake.
Unlike the films, the fame of MacDonald’s novel has waned somewhat in recent years; a pity, since The Executioners remains a harsh, interesting book, and while the 60s Cape Fear’s a great one, it stopped short of including the uncompromising conclusion of the novel that inspired it.
Dr Strangelove (1964)
Based on: Red Alert by Peter George
The fear and loathing of the Cold War era was gloriously satirised in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a film that’s both riotously funny and chilling. The brilliance of Dr Strangelove is brought into sharp relief when compared to Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, a rival nuclear crisis flick released the same year. Fail-Safe is a desperately serious film, delivered sternly by its all-star cast, and is less memorable as a result. The raving anger of Dr Strangelove cuts right to the dumb futility of conflict, just as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 novel had the year before.
In fact, although Dr Strangelove takes its premise from the novel Red Alert, in which a maniacal US general triggers Armageddon, its humour is much more akin to Catch-22. Kubrick’s fusion of speculation and satire, along with his own exacting style of filmmaking, resulted in an unforgettable piece of cinema. The source novel was an interesting product of the Cold War era; the adaptation transcends it.
Mary Poppins (1964/2018)
Based on: the Mary Poppins series by PL Travers
So successful was Disney’s Mary Poppins, and so catchy its music, that it’s easy to forget that it was based on not one but an entire series of children’s books. Writer PL Travers had the first, simply called Mary Poppins, published in 1934, and it was popular enough to prompt seven more, which appeared roughly once a decade. The last was published in 1988, the year the author died.
As (somewhat) correctly seen in 2013’s Saving Mr Banks, Travers initially resisted Disney’s attempts to acquire the rights to Poppins during the 1930s, but it took until the 1960s before the author cautiously signed them away – regretting it for the rest of her life. A sunny mix of music, animation and Edwardian fantasy, the Mary Poppins movie was an enormous success, earning 13 Oscar nominations and a healthy box office return.
Although the name Mary Poppins is commonly associated with Disney’s film these days, Travers’ books are still widely available, and quite different from the adaptation; they’re set in 30s rather than Edwardian London, for one thing, and Poppins is a rather less straightforwardly pleasant character than the one played by Julie Andrews in the movie.
This year’s Mary Poppins Returns will see Emily Blunt taking up the umbrella for a new standalone story based, loosely, on elements from the other books in the series.
Based on: Mute Witness by Robert L Pike
Peter Yates’ seminal 60s thriller is memorable for Steve McQueen’s ice-cool performance as Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, Lalo Schifrin’s excellent soundtrack, and its remarkable San Francisco car chase, which is still regarded as one of the best pursuit sequences in movie history.
The book from which it’s adapted, Robert L Pike’s Mute Witness, is very similar in terms of its premise. A mob witness is murdered while under police protection, and the story’s cop protagonist attempts to track down the killer. The book and the film are quite different in tone, however; Mute Witness is a murder mystery, whereas Bullitt is a faster-paced thriller with action sequences. The book’s set in New York and not San Francisco, and the protagonist is named Lieutenant Clancy – less overtly macho-sounding than Frank Bullitt.
Mute Witness is a more modest piece of work than Yates’ loud, swaggering film, but it still has a cool, steely edge to its prose. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t appear to be in print, though you may be able to find second-hand copies of Bloomsbury’s 1997 issue of the book, published under the title of the movie and decorated with Steve McQueen’s staring face.
Based on: Jaws by Peter Benchley
Published in 1973, Jaws was something of a blockbuster in its own right, and its success as both a best-selling novel and a hit movie appeared to have been worked out well in advance. Benchley loosely based his story of a real-life shark hunt that took place in 1916, following the deaths of four people on the shores of New Jersey.
Having turned in his draft to Doubleday in the early 70s, Universal producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown read it and were impressed; convinced it could be a great movie, they published the film rights for Jaws before its publication. It’s said the producers each purchased a hundred copies of the novel in an attempt to push it onto the best-seller charts – their hope was to give the book away to influential friends in order to get a bit of early buzz going.
As the book’s popularity soared, selling 5.5 million copies in America alone, the producers set to work on the adaptation. Steven Spielberg was brought in on the strength of his killer truck movie Duel, and he hit on the idea of greatly simplifying the book’s subplots and character interactions (including a spot of infidelity between Hooper and Brody’s wife, Ellen, which was left out of the screenplay).
The result was a leaner, more efficient version of the novel – perfect for a summer crowd Hollywood had never tapped into before. A sublime collision of Benchley’s high concept, the cast’s acting charisma, taut direction and John Williams’ murmuring theme, Jaws was a gigantic hit, and still regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made.
First Blood (1982)
Based on: First Blood by David Morrell
As Sylvester Stallone’s subsequent Rambo sequels descended into ever more outlandish displays of bloodshed, it’s strange to think that the first movie, 1982’s First Blood, was not an action movie but a sombre thriller. It introduced John Rambo, an emotionally fragile Vietnam war veteran drifting through America, and detailed his run-in with a sadistic small-town sheriff (played by Brian Dennehy).
The movie hews closely to David Morrell’s 1972 novel of the same name, which was mostly an adventure story, but also touched on the indifferent and sometimes cruel treatment of returning soldiers from Vietnam. The movie’s major departure came at the end, where Rambo is apprehended rather than killed; this, of course, allowed Stallone to return for those sequels, in which he headed off to various locations around the world in search of new armies to conquer.
9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
Based on: 9 1/2 Weeks by Elizabeth McNeill
Memorable to audiences of a certain age as the movie that paired a young Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke (who were both hot Hollywood property at the time) in a series of erotic encounters, 9 1/2 Weeks could be described as the 50 Shades of the 80s – though without the endless descriptions of sexual contracts or laptop specifications.
It was only during the course of researching this article that your humble writer discovered that 9 1/2 Weeks was, in fact, adapted from a book – Nine And A Half Weeks: A Memoir Of A Love Affair. This was based on writer Elizabeth McNeill’s real-life sexual antics during her tenure as a corporate executive.
“Their sexual excitement depended on a pattern of domination and humiliation, and as their relationship progressed they played out ever more dangerous and elaborate variations on that pattern of sadomasochism,” the book’s blurb reads. “By the end, Elizabeth had relinquished all control over her body – and her mind.”
The movie adaptation was well-publicised at the time for its explicit scenes, and rode the crest of an 80s wave of erotic movies and thrillers with sex scenes in them. Neither the film or the book are talked about very much these days, though the movie may be rather more enduring thanks to its actors and its talented director, Adrian Lyne. But with 50 Shades still (somehow) a thing, maybe McNeill’s novel, which deals with markedly similar themes, will be rediscovered by a new generation of readers.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Based on: The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford
Like Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s firm artistic control may have led some to assume that Full Metal Jacket was an original screenplay rather than an adaptation. In fact, Kubrick’s movie is quite faithful to The Short-Timer, the 1979 autobiographical novel by Gustav Hasford, a former marine.
If you’ve ever wondered why Full Metal Jacket is divided so sharply into two halves, it’s because the book does roughly the same thing. The Short-Timer’s split into three segments; the first detailing the training of a group of marines in a boot camp, and the second and third following the recruits on duty in Vietnam. The movie sticks closely to the text for its first half, and takes various events from the book’s second and third sections for its second.
Full Metal Jacket is widely regarded as one of the greatest war films ever made, with a startling performance from R Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Tragically, the book on which it’s based appears to be out of print, but its text is preserved on the author’s official website.
Its prose is terse and bitter and muscular, and it’s easy to see why Kubrick once described it as a masterpiece. Quoth the drill sergeant:
“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. And proud. Until that day you are pukes, you are scumbags, you are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human. You people are nothing but a lot of little pieces of amphibian shit.”
The Princess Bride (1987)
Based on: The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Rob Reiner’s comedy adventure wasn’t a huge hit on release, but it’s gradually grown in popularity since, and is now commonly regarded as something of a cult classic. Its cast is both eclectic and brilliant, featuring Cary Elwes as the ultimate pure-hearted hero, Chris Sarandon as an evil Prince Humperdink, and Christopher Guest as a count with six fingers.
Like some of the other movies on this list, The Princess Bride is so cinematic that its origins as a novel are easily forgotten. But a novel it was, written by William Goldman and published in 1973. A sprawling, extremely novel comedy fantasy, The Princess Bride is at once a story about a man’s search for his lost love, and an account of a writer struggling and at times failing to write and edit the fantasy itself. It’s not unlike Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, in which a screenwriter repeatedly attempts to adapt a non-fiction book for the screen, and almost drives himself mad in the process.
Although less well known than the movie, which Goldman himself adapted, The Princess Bride novel is still easily available, and a great read. The movie was, inevitably, greatly simplified; the film’s about the joy of storytelling, while the book’s about the Sisyphean pain of writing and rewriting, of endlessly polishing and honing. Both are extremely funny, and complement one another perfectly.
Die Hard (1988)
Based on: Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
The idea behind this 80s action classic sounds so cinematic, and so high-concept, that its origins as a pulp thriller are easily overlooked. But long before Bruce Willis donned a vest and shot bad guys in the Nakatomi Plaza, Die Hard began life as a sequel to author Roderick Thorp’s 1966 novel, The Detective.
Thorp got the idea for Nothing Lasts Forever after watching the Irwin Allen disaster movie The Towering Inferno, and decided to write a thriller set in an office block. The book’s protagonist was a retired cop, making him rather older than Bruce Willis’ character John McClane in the 1988 movie.
Otherwise, the movie’s a fairly faithful adaptation; there’s a group of terrorists led by a German named Gruber (first name Anton in the book – Hans in the film), and he has a hot-headed right-hand man called Karl. There’s a coke-snorting exec named Ellis, and a cop on the outside named Al, who becomes on of the hero’s few allies.
Nothing Lasts Forever is still available in a Kindle edition, but it’s fair to say that far more people are aware of the movie than the book. Curiously, Die Hard 2 was also adapted from a novel – an entirely unrelated thriller called 58 Minutes, by Walter Wager. You can read more about the Die Hard franchise’s strange history here.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Based on: Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
Had Robert Zemeckis adapted Forrest Gumpproperly, it probably wouldn’t have won so many Oscars. Based on Winston Groom’s 1986 novel, the 1994 film took the basic idea, muddled it around and pushed it through a filter of sentimentality and sweetness. It’s a lovely film, with a great performance from Tom Hanks, but it’s definitely not what Groom had in mind when he wrote the book.
To start off, Groom’s Gump is 6ft 6” and weighs 240 pounds – originally envisioned with John Goodman in mind. He also goes into space, befriends a chimpanzee named Sue, becomes a professional wrestler (called “The Dunce”), learns chess from a tribe of cannibals, has a lot of sex, swears like a sailor and smokes so much dope he can barely stand up. Oh, and he’s really racist and homophobic too.
Groom is reportedly okay with the changes but he has gone on record to complain about how the film “took the rough edges off the character”. Now regarded as one of cinema’s most beloved characters, it’s hard not think that the Hanks and Zemeckis made the right choices. A giant, stoned Gump swearing at a chimp in space isn’t quite as loveable.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Based on: Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday
A cunning and extremely witty comedy thriller, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang may be one of cinema’s biggest under-achievers of recent years. Barely released in theatres, this directorial debut from screenwriter Shane Black deserved more attention than it first received. Its plot, which involves Robert Downey Jr’s a wannabe actor sucked into Hollywood’s seedy underbelly, is almost too complicated to describe, but it’s clearly based on a legion pulp thrillers and private eye novels.
In fact, Black appears to have such fun playing with hardboiled conventions that we mistakenly assumed that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was simply an homage to the genre – rather like the Coen’s The Big Lebowski reads as a chaotic retelling of The Big Sleep (the two would make a great double bill).
Actually, Kiss Kiss is based on a 1941 book called Bodies Are Where You Find Them. Its writer, Brett Halliday, isn’t as familiar as Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, perhaps, but he was incredibly prolific, and wrote something like 68 novels over a career spanning 50 years. Black took bits of the book’s spine – there are women in peril, disappearing dead bodies, and obscure identities – but he departs radically elsewhere, heading off on self-aware, bizarre tangents that are uniquely his.
Bodies Are Where You Find Them, like so many pulp thrillers, is relatively obscure these days, but Shane Black’s love for them is infectious; after watching Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, you’ll be scouring second-hand bookshops for a copy of the book and others like it.
In this respect, the movie doesn’t so much obscure the source novel, as bathe the entire genre in an enticing light.